collaboration | Nov 10, 2022

Receptive vs. Expressive Language: What’s the Difference?

By Blue Squirrel Team

Receptive vs. Expressive Language: What’s the Difference?


Children go through many phases of play, development, and growth. Some of the more challenging nuances of these changes can occur in the realm of language. 
Receptive and expressive language can resemble each other in many ways but are, in fact, separate categories. They come down to a matter of taking in and responding to. Through this review, we will break down what receptive language and expressive language are and the differences between them. 

Then we will give you a few points that will clue you into any delays or struggles your child may be experiencing with each of these stages. Plus, we’ll review how to guide children as they grow and when to seek professional evaluation and therapy. 


What Is Receptive Language?


Reception (when defined within terms of language) means the taking in of conversation. But when you further define receptive language, it will also include the pure understanding of the information being presented. 

This means that everything we say to our children will become a piece of their receptive language. Because children hear more before they say more, receptive language will develop more quickly when compared to expressive language. 


What Is Expressive Language?


Expressive language describes the terms that children will use when replying to your conversation. These words will convey what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, and what’s bothering them or making them happy. Expressive language will also encompass gestures, pictures, and non-verbal expressions that children can use to get their emotional points across. 

The language they have to express these ideas will grow with time naturally as their vocabulary is expanded upon and will include more details. 


What’s the Difference?


Receptive and expressive language will play off of each other but aren’t synonymous with each other. Your child will use expressive language to tell you about how they’re feeling, but you will utilize your language to create receptive language for your children. 

It’s the difference in the receiving and output of language. 


Examples of Receptive Language


These typical examples of receptive language are helpful clues into what your child will learn and absorb from the things that you say. You’re not limited to these examples of how your child will utilize receptive language, but these are a good starting point for understanding the term. 


Follow Directions


Your child will utilize receptive language when following directions you have given them. These directions will start simply and increase in complexity.


Answer Comprehension Questions


Answering questions about who, what, when, where, or why is another tool in the receptive language bag. With this skill, children can listen to a story or look at a picture and answer definitively about what they’re asked based on the information given. 


Understand Vocabulary


Receptive language will also help clue your child into understanding and comprehending vocabulary. These words will help them relate to time and space as well as the size and quantity of what is being described. 


Critical Thinking and Hypotheses


Receptive language will also help your child make educated guesses about various items. By listening to descriptions of the subject matter, your child will be able to guess as to what could or would happen as a result of the first occurrence. 


Examples of Expressive Language


Expressive language examples will help you teach and guide your child as they learn how to use this language to communicate their needs and thoughts. These examples will serve as valuable aids in helping you through some situations. (Please note that there are many examples of expressive language that are not described here.)


Combined Attention


Using a technique known as joint attention, you can begin to lay the foundation for expressive language. This activity is when two or more people give their attention to the same toy or task and use language to describe their experience.
Examples include reading the same book or listening to a teacher talk in a group setting. 


Development Through Play


No matter the stage of development or play that your child is in, you can use playtime to guide your child through different ways of using expressive language. The games can involve situations and concerns about feelings, and you can work on ways to resolve the issues at hand. 


Social Interactions


The mere act of being a part of the community or interacting with others will help your child learn expressive language. They’ll clue into physical actions and words that describe various feelings and start to perceive peer-to-peer interactions


Verbal Routine


This aspect is geared toward toddlers. Verbal routines like “1, 2, 3 — go” when playing or listening and acting out nursery rhymes (Ring Around the Rosie). Verbal routines help young children understand the sequencing of events and how to predict what comes next. 


Signs a Child Is Experiencing Setbacks


While every child will learn at their own speed, there can be times when setbacks occur, and children will need help catching up. These are general hints and clues that a child may be experiencing setbacks or roadblocks.  It is important to note that these setbacks in language aren’t specific to just one set of language strengths. 


Young Children


In young children, setbacks may be seen in the following ways:
  • Poor eye contact
  • Trouble socializing with other children
  • A very limited vocabulary
  • Cannot follow or has trouble following two-step directions
  • A lot of frustration around communicating needs

Preschool Age


For preschool-age children, setbacks in language can lead to these occurrences:
  • Retelling stories is difficult
  • Using the correct pronouns in sentences
  • Finding it difficult to answer questions about themselves
  • Having trouble engaging with children their age



For children that have reached school age, you will notice trouble with the following situations: 
  • Grammar
  • Proper sentence structure
  • Answering comprehension questions (who/what/what/where/why)
  • Memorizing data or completing a sequence of events 
  • Engaging with children their age

Speech Evaluation


Know that if your child exhibits these difficulties, you are not alone. Many children can have setbacks or roadblocks and just need a little help getting caught up with their peers. If this is something you’re experiencing in your house, it is time to get your child an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist

What Is a Speech Evaluation?


A speech-language evaluation will help determine how far behind your child has fallen and can help implement an appropriate plan of action to get your child up to where they should or need to be. 


What To Expect During a Childhood Speech Evaluation?


Evaluations typically last 60 minutes, and the pathologist will collect information on your child. This information will include medical history, dates of past milestones, and what concerns led you to their office. 

They will also use games and activities during the meeting to assess your child’s current language development. This typically involves questions that increase in difficulty, activities that involve step-by-step directions that become more difficult with each task, and so on. 


Language Therapy


If it is determined that your child is experiencing a setback that requires outside intervention, your pathologist will recommend language therapy for your child. Therapy will look different for every child, but these are the skills that your therapist will work on with your child:


  • Following directions
  • Participating in conversation
  • Answering questions
  • Understanding stories
  • Using the right tense and pronouns
  • Clueing into context cues

Practice and Assistance


The best thing you can do for your child is to practice language as often as possible. Setbacks can occur at any time to any child. Even we adults need help now and then, and our children are no different. With the right assistance, the path to adulthood can be made much smoother for everyone. 

Note: This is not medical advice. Please consult your pediatrician with any concerns about your child.


Receptive Language (understanding words and language) | Kid Sense Child Development
Child Speech Therapy: Expressive Language Skills | Lumiere Child
Who Are Speech-Language Pathologists, and What Do They Do? | ASHA
Attention and memory | SLT for Kids
Creating Verbal Routines for Toddlers | Nancy L. Foreman & Associates

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